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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Real America

The real, phoney baloney America

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August, 18 2006 -- I recently attended church services, which I hadn't done in a long time. It was mostly worse than I remembered. Boring sermons, and modern hymns had replaced the ones I was familiar with. Mostly they weren't as good musically and there is way too much repetition in the lyrics. I was impressed with the band, including drums and the high tech computer-projected visuals. The only real amusement I got out of the services was a handout in the church newsletter on July 4 weekend about the “Real America.”

The article (lifted without attribution) starts out like this. “You remember the real America if you can remember:” Then it goes into a long list of statements like:

“When God and Jesus were welcome in public places”
“When socialism was a dirty word.”
“When the Flag was a sacred symbol.”
“When ghettos were neighborhoods.”
“When people expected less and valued what they had more.”
“When a girl was a girl and dressed like one.” “When a boy was boy and dressed like one.”

My favorite one was “When college kids swallowed goldfish and not beer.” Also a good one is “When riots were unthinkable.” Another is “When everybody didn't feel entitled to a college education.” You can read the whole long thing by clicking on this link. This page, unlike the church bulletin, says it used the article with the permission of the author, Lloyd K. Rogers, and gave him credit for what he wrote.

When I read the authorized version of Rogers' article, I was disappointed to find that what it really says about college students is “When college kids swallowed goldfish, not acid.” That's not nearly as funny, but it does give you an idea about when this was written, before LSD went out of style. College kids have always guzzled beer, even in the “good old days” of the 1950s. I found a couple of others that had been altered, “When everyone didn't feel like the government owed them a living or a college education.” Another was “When it was OK to mention God in school or see the Ten Commandments hanging on a public building's walls.” Instead of the “God and Jesus” one above, which does not appear in the original text. Some, of course, had been left out, like “When you weren't made to feel guilty for enjoying dialect comedy.” I guess some people still miss the Amos and Andy radio show (where the dialect comedy of the black title duo was spoken by two white actors).

The article represents a profound misrepresentation of American history. There have been riots, some of them spectacular, longer than the United States has been a nation. There were spectacular riots in New York City during the Civil War. Federal troops opened fire on protesting World War I veterans in Washington D.C. killing many. Crime is nothing new, ditto for criminals escaping justice. Socialism may have been a dirty word in the 1950s, but it certainly wasn't in the 1930s and 1940s. With the Republicans in power these days people may not value what they have, but they are certainly learning to expect less, particularly from their government and other social institutions, like insurance companies and health care providers. The inept government response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster is a good example.

As far as boys and girls cross-dressing, there have always been tomboys and cross-dressers like Calamity Jane. There have always been women and men who were not content with the narrow gender roles imposed by society. There have always been homosexuals and the transgendered, even when they were severely persecuted. The difference is that people are freer to express themselves now. A lot of people just wish the homosexuals and transsexuals would go back into the closet. I don't think people really feel threatened by them (few people who have really thought about it buy the argument that gay marriage is a real threat to heterosexual marriage). I think straight-laced types are just annoyed by them. They want them all to just go away. The lopsided votes for gay marriage bans are just another attempt to stuff these people back in the closet.

I suspect that “The Real America” imagined by Mr. Rogers (such a lovely time in his neighborhood?) is the America enjoyed by some white men in the 1950s. Some people think of this period as particularly good because Europe and Japan were decimated by the war, China was still a slumbering giant and wages were relatively good in the U.S. because of that, and because of our powerful unions. The stifling conformity imposed by society was fine. The Communist witch hunts and book burnings were fine. The lynchings of blacks was fine, segregation was fine, government-sanctioned crimes against Japanese Americans was fine. In fact, discrimination against all minorities was just fine, as long as most white men were unaffected by this unpleasantness.

Of course, if you happened to be an American Indian, an Asian American, a black, hispanic, homosexual, socialist, nonconformist or a woman whose ambitions went beyond the kitchen, it was not a great time to be an American. Times were tough. You could get blacklisted and lose your job, even if you weren't a communist. If you were black, you could be murdered and no one would probably ever be punished for that crime, or any other crimes against blacks. It was open season on blacks in those days, just as it had been for 100 years before that. If you were a woman in the 1950s, your career options were very limited indeed. You could be a housewife, a secretary, a telephone operator or a teacher. That was about it. If you were black, your career options were even more limited. A lot of people, mostly white men, liked it the way it was, and wish they could turn the clock back to those happy times in the 1950s. “Happy Days,” indeed.

Of course the 1950s were not the simple, peaceful happy times that some people pretend they were. There was great social unrest in the 1950s, but the lid was kept on by powerful forces, including police, the news media, schools, the Ku Klux Klan, the government and rigid social conformity. By the end of the decade the seams had begun to burst. The bloody Korean war, the forced integration of the armed forces, the beatniks, the Kinsey report, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement were just a foreshadowing of the explosion to come in the next decade. The ripples of that explosion are still being felt throughout society. The environmental movement, civil rights, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the American Indian Movement. All of that exploded in the 1960s. All these minorities wanted the same rights that white men already had. A lot of old timers wish the 1960s hadn't happened. They'd like to get in a time machine and go back the 1950's, when the lid was still clamped on the women and all those troublesome minorities who wanted all those irritating freedoms from the oppression of the majority.

This whole nostalgia for the 1950s is really funny, almost as funny as the bleeding heart conservatives who outrageously redefine themselves as victims. Hey, it worked for the liberals. I guess you really can't blame them for trying. Religious conservatives claim they are victims because their children are taught sciences (like evolution, biology, astronomy and geology) and sex eduction in school. Some people want science banned in schools, replaced with creationist doctrines that are 5,000 years old. Teachers are not allowed to lead prayers or proselytize in public schools. Religious symbols like the cross or the 10 commandments are not allowed as permanent fixtures on land or in buildings purchased or built with tax money. This is makes who a victim?

One reader told me he felt victimized by a lack of public prayers at football games. Since when is it your right in this country to impose your religious beliefs on everyone else, and get a tax subsidy to do it? Just imagine how Christians and Jews would feel if they went to a school football game at a stadium built with their tax money and then had to listen to Islamic prayers before the game. Islam is a fast-growing religion in this country. If Muslims get enough votes to elect their candidates to a school board or city council, should that give them the right to impose Islamic prayers in a public school, teach Islamic classes, have Islamic prayers at football games, have copies of the Koran displayed in courthouses? If they did that then you can bet there would be a political uproar. Even the most staunch Christian conservatives would want an addition to the Bill of Rights. Maybe something like separation of church and state. When you belong to a minority, you need constitutional, legal protection from the abuses of the majority. The people who founded this country knew all about religious persecution. They fled from religious persecution in Europe. That is why the separation of church and state is in the constitution.

The point is, Christian conservatives are not victims, regardless of how much they whine about it. They effectively control all three branches of government. The fact that they can't force religious minorities to sit through prayers in public schools or other public events that they don't agree with, tolerate religious symbols that are not part of their own faith, or that they can't force the teaching of hair-brained theories like Intelligent Design and astronomical, biological and geological nonsense about a world and a universe only a few thousand years old doesn't make them victims. It makes them frustrated bullies. There is a big difference between those two things.

Rogers' article represents revisionist history from a narrow perspective, but more than that, the presence of this article in a church bulletin, accompanied by patriotic rhetoric about how America is the greatest country in the world, is a troubling reminder of the Islamization of Christianity. Now if Christ had come to earth as a political leader, and had overthrown the evil empire of Rome, then Christian ministers would have every right to follow Christ's example and be cheerleaders for the war in Iraq and to tell young soldiers it is perfectly O.K. to kill Muslims or any other enemy of the moment. Christ established a kingdom, all right, but it was a spiritual one, not a political one. Christ had an answer for the question of church and state. It went something like this, “Render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's, and unto God that which is God's.” It is another way of saying that God's kingdom and the kingdom of men are two separate things. It is certainly not a call to combine the two. No, the model for political ministers who support war, and who work for the passage of laws limiting the rights of minorities, limiting or banning stem cell research, who seek to ban the teaching of evolution, etc., is not Christ, but another well-known prophet, Mohammed. Mohammed did fight wars and he did practice politics. He did the same sorts of things that modern Christian ministers are doing when they play political games. Modern Christian ministers are following the wrong prophet when they do this. History and scripture both indicate the path they are following leads to political and spiritual ruin. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) warned about certain church-state abuses thousands of years ago when he noted: “A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.”

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Copyright © 2006 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie review or essay, please mention the name of the movie or article you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)